Just released on DVD by Acorn Media, A Mind to Kill is a 1990s drama series featuring Philip Madoc as Welsh detective Noel Bain. Acorn Media claims to distribute “distinctive home video releases… with a special focus on the best of British television,” and this three-disk boxed set lives up to that claim. Comprised of six feature-length episodes of A Mind to Kill, the collection is dark, moody, and sometimes disturbing. Its American counterpart might be Law & Order: Special Victims Unit; in the first three episodes Detective Chief Inspector Noel Bain is assigned to cover the type of crimes associated with SVU. He and his team work out of a large white van, “Mobile Incident Room,” which is the subject of a few jokes in the earlier episodes. But there is little humor in A Mind to Kill, and most of it is irony.
One of the appeals of the Law & Order franchise is that it minimizes the soap opera aspect present in most television dramas. Not all viewers are interested in the private lives of the principals; some watch only for the dramatization of the crime and resolution. When the first episode of A Mind to Kill, “Black Silence,” began, I was dismayed to see Hannah Bain, Noel’s 16-year-old daughter, collaterally featured in the storyline. In the first two episodes, Hannah, the sweet daughter, is merely a supporting player—her function is to illustrate another facet of Noel’s life. Soon Hannah morphs into a melodramatic element that detracts from the crime drama. In the third episode, “Gameboys,” in which Hannah is 17, her role had grown, and her relationship with dad had deteriorated, which paved the way for episode four, “Rest Not Secure,” a rather dreary episode in which Inspector Bain and Hannah become hostages. The enduring “hero as hostage” theme is one of the more overworked and tiresome plot devices. Do we really think he may not survive when we know: 1) he’s the star; 2) he has a contract; and 3) there is another episode to follow (for which we’ve already read the synopsis and learned that he appears neither as a corpse nor in a vegetative state)?
Some of the stories have sordid elements. “Black Silence” is about the murder of a 17-year-old prostitute and is told against the background of a violent miners’ strike. “White Rocks,” the second episode, features the hammer murder of a young mother, witnessed by her seven-year-old son, and ventures into the realm of pornography. “Gameboys” centers on the murder of a young “rent boy,” closeted homosexuals, and kiddie porn. Inspector Bain is an ex-rugby player, still rabid about the game, and rugby is mentioned in most episodes; it’s an important component of “Gameboys.”
Bain is a somewhat complex man who has the misfortune of being friends with people who, in the first three episodes, are not the good, kind-hearted, altruistic souls he believed they were, but serial killers, deviants, and perverts. The problem with a show that takes place in a small geographical area in which the sleuth knows everyone is that said sleuth, who brilliantly solves crimes, is also so stupid that he doesn’t suspect his criminal friends and neighbors. Because A Mind to Kill is so interesting, we willingly suspend disbelief and accept that Bain really is a brilliant detective. He can also be a grumpy detective who argues with his superiors, chastises his crew, and mixes it up with suspects. This is counterbalanced by his eroding parental authority. As a widowed father with a teenage daughter, he faces many challenges at home. His relationship with Hannah starts out lovely, until Hannah decides she hates his job and moves out.
The violence is amped up in episode four and continues through a riveting fifth episode, “Son of His Works.” It begins with the very nasty murder of a naked man who is being forced to dig his own grave, then focuses on a “religious hippie commune,” wherein the members cede all their wealth to a swami and the leader of the cult. In return they are offered cures for their ailments, particularly cancer. Besides spiritual enlightenment, the cure comes in the form of heroin which has yet to be proven an effective weapon in the war against cancer. The fun in this episode is watching the various storylines (adulterous attorneys, crooked cabbies, and compliant cult members) converge. The final episode in the set is “Rachel Hardcastle,” in which performances rise above another television staple, the hero suspected of a dastardly crime. Yes, Inspector Bain is framed for a murder. Yes, Inspector Bain is arrested and jailed. No, Inspector Bain didn’t do it. He and daughter Hannah have reconciled, a result of his being shot in the fourth episode.
Despite using overly-recycled formulae, A Mind to Kill is tremendously entertaining, thanks in no small part to Philip Madoc’s performance as Inspector Bain. While comparisons may be made to other British police dramas, Bain is an original and Madoc gives him life. He is competently supported by the rest of the cast.
A Mind to Kill is not a travelogue of Wales. Although there are some breathtaking views, we mostly see a working-class, depressed Wales where gangs of children roam the streets, and the elderly watch and fear them from behind their curtains. The people are unattractive and many are seething with violence. This is a Wales of too little money, too few jobs, and a firmly rooted distrust of the government. Thus, Wales is a supporting character in the drama.
Episodes run between 90 and 100 minutes, and contain nudity (including full frontal), violence, and “mature” language. This is the first time A Mind to Kill has been available to U.S. audiences.
The special features don’t add up to much: director’s production notes and cast filmographies. The filmographies are listings of several cast members’ acting credits, less inclusive than what you would find by Googling an actor’s name and “filmography,” displayed in a slideshow format. The director’s production notes are also a slide show of sorts, just a few short printed slides. While some of the information is interesting, the bonus features are unsatisfying.
Bottom Line: Would I buy it? Yes. Well, no, actually, but I would rent it. Right now I’m more interested in eliminating huge chunks of my DVD collection, not adding to it.